If any piece of classic American literature should be depicted on film with wildly decadent and boldly inventive style, it's "The Great Gatsby." After all, who was the character of Jay Gatsby himself if not a spinner of grandiose tales and a peddler of lavish dreams?
And Baz Luhrmann would seem like the ideal director to bring F. Scott Fitzgerald's story to the screen yet again, to breathe new life into these revered words, having shaken up cultural institutions previously with films like "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" and "Moulin Rouge!" This is the man who dared to stage the iconic balcony scene in a swimming pool, so mixing in a little Jay-Z amid the Jazz Age standards strangely makes sense.
But in Luhrmann's previous films, there still existed a fundamental understanding of the point of the stories he was telling; beneath their gorgeous trappings, they still reflected the heart and the purpose of the works from which they were drawn. His "Great Gatsby" is all about the glitter but it has no soul — and the fact that he's directed it in 3-D only magnifies the feeling of artificiality. His camera rushes and swoops and twirls through one elaborately staged bacchanal after another but instead of creating a feeling of vibrancy, the result is repetitive and ultimately numbing. Rather than creating a sense of immersion and tangibility, the 3-D holds you at arm's length, rendering the expensive, obsessive details as shiny and hollow when they should have been exquisite.
(We should point out that the clothes, especially the dresses Carey Mulligan wears as the elusive, ethereal golden girl Daisy Buchanan, are magnificent, though — the work of Luhrmann's wife and frequent collaborator Catherine Martin, who serves as both production and costume designer. Watching "The Great Gatsby," the film, makes you wonder whether all of this might have functioned more effectively as "The Great Gatsby," the Vogue magazine spread.)
Luhrmann's adaptation, which he co-wrote with Craig Pearce, lacks the sense of melancholy and longing that emanated from the novel's pages, even though the script invokes Fitzgerald's prose early and often through voiceover from Tobey Maguire as our narrator, guide and Fitzgerald stand-in Nick Carraway. Sometimes, as in the book's famous, final sentence, the words pop right up on screen and linger in the air.
But there's something about hearing and seeing them in this fashion that depletes them of the power they provide when we experience them on the written page. It's a reminder that one of the most celebrated novels of our time, at its core, is a melodramatic tale of love and loss, jealousy and betrayal.
Gatsby himself, played with well-coifed panache by Leonardo DiCaprio, too often comes off as a needy, clingy stalker rather than a tragic figure and a victim of the American dream. But in general, though, Luhrmann's "Gatsby" doesn't get the fact that the book was intended as a critical look at a crumbling dream. It gets too caught up in the buzz of the party.
The plot, real quickly, in case it's been a while since 10th-grade English class: The year is 1922, and young Nick Carraway has moved into a cottage on the nouveau riche Long Island enclave of West Egg with dreams of making it big on the New York Stock Exchange. Across the bay is the old-moneyed community of East Egg, where Nick's cousin, the dazzling socialite Daisy, lives with her cheating, blue-blooded husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton).
But everyone, regardless of where they're from, gathers each weekend for wild parties at Gatsby's palatial abode — which happens to be next door to Nick's humble house. The normally mysterious Gatsby befriends Nick with hopes of reconnecting with Daisy, the one who got away five years earlier. Mulligan's Daisy is more of an idea than a fully fleshed-out person, but then again, maybe that's always been the point: that she's alluring but tantalizingly out of reach.
DiCaprio, meanwhile — despite the usual depth and edge he can bring to a role — comes off here as a parody of a Fitzgerald character, tossing around Gatsby's jovial greeting of "old sport" so often in his affected accent, it could make for a dangerous drinking game. Now that would truly be intoxicating.
"The Great Gatsby," a Warner Bros. Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language. Running time: 141 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
PG-13 — Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.